Radio Ecoshock January 7, 2011
#1. I interview Jeff Masters. Millions of people check with "The Weather Underground" for the latest. They want the color charts, maps, satellite photos, - and - the big picture from Dr. Jeff Masters. As a Meteorologist, Jeff was a "Hurricane Hunter", flying with the National Oceans and Atmospheric Administration planes out of Miami. He flew right into the big ones, like Gilbert, and finally Hurricane Hugo. In 1995, Masters co-founded a web site, to make real-time sense of raw data pouring out of the National Weather Service. We talk about the relationship of wetter and warming winters to the blizzards that hit the U.S. and Canadian Northeast, the wild winter heat wave in the Arctic, and floods in Australia. What does the future hold?
#2 A bit of energy news. Oil burning has jumped significantly in 2010, the biggest jump in over 5 years. Bad news for the planet's atmosphere. With a bit more energy news, involving Russia (now the world's largest oil producer, bigger than Saudi Arabia) and China (likely the world's biggest oil consumer, or heading that way). Why this impacts the U.S. dollar and American government ability to borrow.
#3. Why China went the standard American-style consumer route, complete with an unsustainable oil path. Hear the interview with Karl Gerth, who teaches modern Chinese history at Oxford. His new book is "As China Goes, So Goes the World. How Chinese Consumers Are Transforming Everything."
We all talk about the weather, and there has been more weather to talk about.
Millions of people check with "The Weather Underground" for the latest. They want the color charts, maps, satellite photos, - and - the big picture from Dr. Jeff Masters.
As a Meteorologist, Jeff was a "Hurricane Hunter", flying with the National Oceans and Atmospheric Administration planes out of Miami. He flew right into the big ones, like Gilbert, and finally Hurricane Hugo. In 1995, Masters co-founded a web site, to make real-time sense of raw data pouring out of the National Weather Service.
This week, "The Weather Underground" was number 57 for traffic, out of all the Internet sites in the world. It's huge.
Now we need some answers, about the mega-rains, strange hot Summers, and blustery Northern winters. It's a treat to have Dr. Jeff Masters join us on Radio Ecoshock.
Of course, everyone wants to know how the Northern Hemisphere got so much cold and snow, after one of the hottest years on record. Before we talk about that, we quickly skip to another kind of emergency, on the other side of the Planet: the epic floods in Queensland, Australia,
Then we get to the blizzards in the U.S., record cold in Britain, and heavy snow throughout Northern Europe - is it just normal Winter, or something else?
Part of the problem is the media lens. One reason 911 was so over-powering: it happened in New York, an American news hub, with live cameras. The latest surprising winter weather is hitting New York, London, Berlin, Moscow, and Beijing - all the biggest news centers.
We don't hear about extra heat in South America. Crops in Argentina are threatened, yet another way that climate change will cause hyper-inflation in world food prices, and gaps in availability (read mass starvation) in the future.
Even in my own country, Canada, the major newspapers did not report wild heat in the Canadian Arctic and Greenland, up to 15 degrees above normal. Or buried little human interest stories in the back pages, how aboriginal people couldn't keep their ice cubes outdoors anymore, in January, because they melted. That is serious where people use the normally frigid outside as their refrigerators.
Reading the mass media, I could think the whole world is cooling. But it is heating. Jeff explains.
It makes me wonder how long TV weathermen and women can keep reporting these extraordinary events without ever mentioning the words "climate change". It's kind of a joke around our house. We watch a long string of horrible weather records, and it's all just captioned "weird weather", - a strange string of accidents, with no cause. Any predictions on when the mass media will let people in on the secret?
Jeff compares the situation to CFC's (chlorofluorocarbons) used in refrigeration. There were warnings in the 1970's and early 1980's these could cause damage to the Earth's protective ozone layer. But governments did not meet to act until after a huge hole was found in the ozone layer, over Antarctica. With climate, it may take something like a complete melting of all the Arctic ice in Summer, to bring real action?
The relative heat wave in Canada's Eastern Arctic was unknown even to Canadians, until more populated cities started to melt recently. In the far North, there are few people, few weather stations, and no cameras, to record December temperatures up to 15 degrees Celsius above normal.
Every time the U.S. or the U.K. gets a big snow storm, the global warming deniers start chanting the mantra of "global cooling." More mocking videos, some of them from TV weather personalities, go up on You tube. In Jeff's blog, at wunderground.com, he suggest extra snow might be linked to climate change.
Here is the most relevant part from that blog posting.
remarkable Post-Christmas blizzard of 2010 has ended for the United States, as
the storm has trekked northeastward into Canada. The blizzard dropped epic
amounts of snow during its rampage up the U.S. Northeast coast Sunday and
Monday, with an incredible 32" falling in Rahway, New Jersey, about 15
miles southwest of New York City. The highest populated areas of New Jersey
received over two feet of snow, including the Newark Airport, which received
24.1". Snowfall amounts were slightly lower across New York City. The
blizzard of 2010 dumped 20.0" inches on New York City's Central Park,
making it the 6th largest snowstorm for the city in recorded history, and the
second top-ten snowstorm this year. Remarkably, New York City has had four of
its top-ten snowfalls in the past decade ..."
And in that blog entry, Jeff Masters begins to list off the top 10 snow-falls of Central Park, which range from 1888 to two in 2010.
Later, he continues, under this headline, quote:
"An unusual number of top-ten snowstorms for the Northeast in recent years
The Northeast has seen an inordinate number of top-ten snowstorms in the past ten years, raising the question of whether this is due to random chance or a change in the climate. A study by Houston and Changnon (2009) on the top ten heaviest snows on record for each of 121 major U.S. cities showed no upward or downward trend in these very heaviest snowstorms during the period 1948 - 2001. It would be interesting to see if they repeated their study using data from the past decade if the answer would change. As I stated in my blog post, The United States of Snow in February, bigger snowstorms are not an indication that global warming is not occurring. The old adage, "it's too cold to snow", has some truth to it, and there is research supporting the idea that the average climate in the U.S. is colder than optimal to support the heaviest snowstorms. For example, Changnon et al. (2006) found that for the contiguous U.S. between 1900 - 2001, 61% - 80% of all heavy snowstorms of 6+ inches occurred during winters with above normal temperatures. The authors also found that 61% - 85% of all heavy snowstorms of 6+ inches occurred during winters that were wetter than average. The authors conclude, "a future with wetter and warmer winters, which is one outcome expected (National Assessment Synthesis Team 2001), will bring more heavy snowstorms of 6+ inches than in 1901 - 2000." The authors found that over the U.S. as a whole, there had been a slight but significant increase in heavy snowstorms of 6+ inches than in 1901 - 2000. If the climate continues to warm, we should expect an increase in heavy snow events for a few decades, until the climate grows so warm that we pass the point where winter temperatures are at the optimum for heavy snow events."
That's the kind of compact facts and analysis that keeps wunderblog.com in the top 100 most visited Internet sites in the world. Plus all the snappy graphs and satellite shots we can't show you on radio.
Scientists have been predicting increased droughts in dry areas, and floods in wet areas, for a long time. But most of us thought it would happen in 2100, or maybe 2040. I never thought I'd see such climate instability, so soon. Is climate disruption coming sooner than we thought, and if so, what does that mean?
In our November 19, 2010 Radio Ecoshock show, Dr. Tim Garrett from the University of Utah said climate change is really a long-term natural disaster. He suggests weather extremes produce, quote "an ever increasing environmental pressure on civilization, that continually acts as an ever stronger force, that eats away at what we have produced in the past."
[Tim Garrett interview 24 min Lo-Fi]
When I heard that, I thought of storm-drains overwhelmed in England, levees breaking in the United States, the unhealed scars of massive flooding in Pakistan, crops burned out in Russia. Jeff Masters, is it possible extreme weather events, driven by climate change, could slowly cripple the global economy?
We agree that will happen.
It looks like the world climate has been destabilized, to some extent. Our science is now in catch-up mode, trying to understand how sensitive the whole Earth system is. Is it possible we might have a few relatively quiet years, in terms of storms, floods, and heat? If the climate moves in uneven steps, instead of a steady progression, the public and the politicians might lose focus.
Jeff agrees this is a major concern. Climate change can be step-like, rather than a steady curve upwards. He ominously expects a new and fairly permanent change to our climate, sometime in the next decade. No one knows when, but it is coming. But if we have a few quiet years, the climate deniers might persuade the public (who are only too happy to keep on with fossil fuelled life) that no action is necessary. Global warming has "stopped" these deniers would say. But the carbon continues to build up, and the physics of what happens is well known.
While most mainstream weather reporters dodge the connections to climate change, millions of people bail out to get the straight news from Jeff Masters and his co-conspirators at the Weather Underground.
The truth will get out.
I'm Alex Smith, and this is Radio Ecoshock.
News on the energy front is all over the map.
Some day, I would like to report the world will burning fewer fossil fuels next year. We cannot say that now.
According to a Reuters business report, quote:
"Oil demand growth jumped 2.2 million barrels per day (bpd) in 2010, the biggest rise in six years, and forecasts for an addition 1.5 million bpd of use in 2011, according to a Reuters poll."
The world will burn even more oil, pushing up levels of greenhouse gases well past the already dangerous level.
The bad news/good news coming out of that devastating flood in Queensland, Australia is a tiny slow-down in world coal production.
The Wall Street Journal reported December 30th, coal mines responsible for almost 25 percent of Australia's big climate-killing export have been flooded or isolated by flooding. The world's largest producer of specialized coal used to make steel, and Australia's largest coal miner, BHP Billiton called in a rare contract clause called "force majeure" - meaning the coal cannot be delivered according to contracts, mostly with China, - because of uncontrolled forces of Nature.
Australia helps pollute the atmosphere by producing about a third of a billion tons of coal every year. Around 25 percent of that coal is temporarily halted. Many coal lines cannot run. The Planet will catch a temporary break, due to historic flooding, likely augmented by the same coal burning. Australia is being heavily damaged by it's own polluting coal industry.
While Queensland floods, Perth Australia just went through 4 days of heat over 40 degrees C. Blistering hot, Mate.
The actual smokestacks for Australian (and Canadian) coal are in China, producing consumer products for Western Countries, Africa, South America, and the growing Middle Class in China itself.
Now China has a new oil supply route, the first pipeline directly from Russia to Northern China. According to BBC News, the pipeline between eastern Siberia and North-East China will carry 300,000 barrels a day.
Russia, says the BBC, "overtook Saudi Arabia as the world's largest oil producer in 2009."
Little reported in Western newspapers, outside business circles, China and Russia recently concluded a very significant agreement. Until now, almost all of the oil sold in the world is paid in U.S. dollars. China and Russia have agreed to trade directly in their own currencies, by-passing the dollar.
So far that trade is small, in the border areas, but it could get big. It is one more move away from the weakening U.S. dollar, as the basis for international trade. If that trend continues, the American government will have more difficulty borrowing, to support it's huge deficits. More here.
Now the world's largest oil producer, and the up-and-coming world's largest oil consumer, may be dumping the dollar.
Previously Russian oil was delivered exclusively by rail tank cars. Undoubtedly, more pipelines are in the works, to feed the huge and growing market for Chinese gasoline, and all those new cars.
The atmosphere will pay the price, as will we all, as climate instability hammers away at our economies.
A key question: why did China decide to go with the car and oil civilization, rather than jumping ahead into clean energy? Why has consumerism triumphed in the East, even as we see resources running out, and the environment severely threatened?
We'll find out more, in our next Radio Ecoshock interview. "The Chinese Consumers."
The biggest, the best, the most, the worst - that is the new China. Where bicycle bells turned to traffic jams in 20 years. New Manhattans rose up out of the ground. Pollution smeared the sky and the rivers. The world's biggest airport, the world's largest wind farms, the world's biggest everything, as the greatest population on Earth, became "Consumers".
"As China Goes, So Goes the World. How Chinese Consumers Are Transforming Everything." That's the title from a new book by Karl Gerth. He's a fellow at Merton College, teaching modern Chinese history at Oxford University, in Britain.
[publisher info on this book. After Wikileaks, I no longer publish Amazon.com listings.]
I'm going to get lazy here, and just reprint my ideas for the Karl Gerth interview. We got to most of these questions, but not all, and Karl raised other issues. For example, he suggested it was not impossible that America, "the Saudi Arabia of coal" might end up providing coal for Chinese factories and homes. Another climate killing development that is always possible. The Chinese are already short of coal, as they opened a new (inefficient) coal burning power station every week.
Here is that Karl Gerth interview script, to give you clues on our discussion:
Karl, I've been watching China for two decades now, nervous and amazed.
Economists tell us North America and Europe can be measured by the health of consumer buying. Give us a couple of snapshots, of the new Chinese consumerism.
What makes this so startling, is the tsunami of change, from the recent era of China's leader, Chairman Mao Tse-Tung. When it comes to acquiring and wasting "stuff" in the 1960's and early 70's - what were the sayings and customs, that kept consumerism in check?
Is there a particular date when China changed tracks, and why did it happen?
Was this an inevitable demand from below, or a political directive from the Communist Party? Maybe we should take the case of private car ownership, as an example.
In the early 1990's, there was still hope, especially coming from Greens in the West, that China would see the pollution, the scarcity of oil, massive deaths and injuries in car accidents. They could go directly for sustainable energy, bypassing our mistakes in the fossil fuel age. Why didn't that happen?
It all seems to sad, Karl. Take the bicycles. Here in Vancouver, we are battling businessmen to get just a couple of safe bike pathways, into the downtown. To get work within walking distance of where we live. Really, to get some of the things China already had. Tell us about China, when you first went there.
I suppose car production has become central to the economy now, as it was in the U.S. a few decades ago?
I want to get to the changes in Chinese food. Talk to us about the new demand for meat, and the consequences.
This is Radio Ecoshock, talking with Oxford historian and author, Karl Gerth, about the new Chinese consumers. Karl, your book is almost a house of mirrors. We start looking at China, and see reflections of our own excess. Like their love affair with disposable products, and the avalanche of waste. Is that Chinese, or American?
What are some of the Western brand names most popular in China?
You have a subtext in the book, "As China Goes, So Goes the World" - which again reflects back on us. The whole game of "brand name" products is to project status. And yet China is famous for producing look-alike fakes. How does the world's largest counterfeiter deal with this confusion?
Even deeper, you suggest China's political elite have purposely steered the population into Consumer issues, to keep them away from meaningful politics. Of course, that could never happen here. How can you back that claim up, in China?
I read American financial blogs. There is a whole pack of pundits predicting China will collapse, due to a real estate bubble, many times larger than the fallen American market. And we have seen Google space photos of tracts of empty houses, even empty new cities, in China. You say the wealthiest developers are connected directly to the current rulers. Is there big trouble brewing in Chinese real estate, and what does that mean for the Communist Party?
You have a whole chapter on "Extreme Markets". Part of that is the sex trade. Can you briefly explain how population policy, may be driving it?
The other extreme market so hated by Western Greens, is the Chinese reversion to traditional medicine that demands exotic animal parts, like bear claws, the Tiger penis, and shark fins for soup. Is China so large, these demands alone, could bring about species extinction?
I'm Alex Smith. Our guest is Karl Gerth, with a new book "As China Goes, So Goes the World". As we've seen, hundreds of millions of Chinese people have bought into the Western ideal of consumerism. They love televisions, mobile phones, refrigerators, air-conditioners, and all the electronic goodies. Almost 70 percent of that runs on coal-fired electricity, burned inefficiently, with low-grade equipment.
Karl, the right-wing voice of U.S. business, the Heritage Institute, claims Chinese dependence on coal is, quote, "an insuperable obstacle to an international [climate] agreement." Their graph shows Chinese coal burning quadrupled, from around 200 million tons in 1999, to 826 million tons in 2009. Now the government has stopped publishing coal statistics. How serious is this problem of coal burning in China?
A couple of weeks ago, in December, news agencies reported some Chinese cities were running very low on coal, even reduced to rolling black-outs. Nothing is simple in China. The coal producers say the government fixed price is too low. Some local governments may be limiting coal use to reach energy efficiency targets, set by the central government in Beijing. And it's a colder winter than expected. Or: are they just perilously close to Peak Coal?
As you point out in your book, there can be no Chinese consumer revolution, no surge of jobs for the millions leaving rural lands for the city, without burning coal. I'm feeling a kind of unstoppable force here, a fear we can't save the climate, now that Asia is living just like us. Do you see signs of hope?
Karl Gerth, the whole project of turning the most populous country on Earth, into a consumer paradise, is even less sustainable, than our own over-heated economy. And we love to blame somebody far way for world problems. How have we in the West contributed to Chinese pollution?
I was surprised to learn that one quarter of China is desert - and that area is growing rapidly, partly due to consumer demands, but also water problems. Can you explain?
We've covered some doom and gloom. What are some of the fun parts, the way Chinese people express themselves, in what they buy?
Does China need the Western markets any more? Can they just feed their own consumer market, with their own products, for decades?
Of course, we have to end with a look into the tea leaves. Some pundits expect China to crash into hyper-inflation, with mass riots, followed perhaps by a split into two nations: North China dry and hungry, with millions leaving for new land in Siberia. South China too hot for rice, the staple crop.
Others see China as the next world leader, surviving from it's deep cultural roots, it's long history, it's hard working people. Would you care to throw your hat in, and picture China in 2030? Where is this going?
We've been delving into the new consumer culture sweeping China. The book is "As China Goes, So Goes the World, How Chinese Consumers Are Transforming Everything," by Oxford historian Karl Gerth. The book is short, and full of facts and ideas that kind of punch us in the face, on every page. Karl, I was astonished at some of the raw numbers coming out. How could anything and everything be that big!
Karl Gerth, thank you for talking with us.